- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Recent editorials from Mississippi newspapers:

April 12

Sun Herald, Biloxi, on ex-sheriff Mike Byrd charges:

Perhaps if Chief U.S. District Judge William Steele had had a more complete picture of Mike Byrd’s tenure as sheriff of Jackson County, the judge would have ruled in favor of the Sun Herald’s request to see the letters written to the court on behalf of Byrd.

But thanks to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Byrd came before Steele with just one felony charge against him.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed not to bring any additional charges against Byrd if he would plead guilty to one.

No wonder Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Bordenkircher could boast: “This case was quickly investigated and handled in an expeditious manner. Given the totality of the circumstances, I thought it was a very just decision by the court.”

But Bordenkircher’s office did not offer Judge Steele anything approaching “the totality of the circumstances.”

The best chance of that happening was in a state court in Jackson County, where a circuit judge was expected to preside over a trial in which Byrd faced 29 state felonies and two misdemeanors.

But in an even more egregious plea bargain agreement, District Attorney Tony Lawrence tossed out 28 of the felonies and both of the misdemeanors in exchange for Byrd pleading guilty on just one felony.

It was in this generous prosecutorial atmosphere that Byrd wound up pleading guilty to one federal felony and one state felony and being sentenced to six months’ house arrest, charged a fine and placed under a few years of supervision.

While the U.S. Attorney’s Office was congratulating itself on its expeditious handling of the Byrd case, Lawrence was trying to convince his constituents he’d acted “in the best interest of the county.”

Lawrence had, after all, set in motion the process that removed Byrd from office. But his removal from office under these circumstances denied his accusers and victims their day in court.

Though never tested in court, the state’s charges against Byrd portray him as a sheriff who allegedly used his office to retaliate against perceived enemies; order deputies and office staff to raise money for private causes; conceal a shooting in the county narcotics task force office; pressure witnesses to testify falsely in grand jury cases; demand free lawn mower repair; and punish a female deputy who rebuffed his sexual advances.

Yet at least two dozen people wrote to Judge Steele describing Byrd as “dedicated, having high integrity, honorable.”

We felt the public deserved to see those comments in their full context and know who wrote them. Instead, as with so much else about this case, the letters remain out of public view.




April 11

Greenwood Commonwealth on drug courts fighting marijuana:

U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett of McComb, who started Mississippi’s first drug court in the 1990s when he was a circuit judge in Southwest Mississippi, is a member of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals’ board of directors.

In December, that board unanimously approved a resolution opposing efforts to legalize the sale of marijuana and to reduce penalties for using the drug. It also supported a balanced approach to marijuana-related offenses, meaning “an evidence-based combination of treatment and behavioral interventions to achieve long-term recovery from drug and alcohol use.”

Starrett and his fellow drug court professionals are correct. Marijuana is a harmful drug. In a perfect world, it and other mind-altering narcotics would not be in such high demand.

Unfortunately, we live in a greatly imperfect world, and one of its most obvious flaws is the popularity of drugs such as marijuana. Two states have legalized the sale of the drug even though the federal government, whose laws in theory supersede state statutes, still prohibits the possession or sale of marijuana.

The main reason to consider legalizing marijuana is to set restrictions on the sale and use of the drug, and to receive taxes on the sales and profits of it. It just seems better for governments to get their share of the pie and to reduce the criminal element the drug trade now fosters.

Another reason for legalization, frankly, is that this is one war that law enforcement will never win.

There are simply too many buyers.

The demand for drugs, despite a multi-decade “war” and despite obvious effects on the health of those who use them, has not let up. The debate over legalizing marijuana is sure to continue, with both sides presenting valid arguments.




April 15

Northeast Mississippi Journal, Tupelo, Miss., on Ethics Commission affirming open records:

The Mississippi Ethics Commission brought open meetings-open records law firmly into 21st century communications with an opinion that text messages about government business are public record, available to every citizen as well as to news organizations.

The commission’s opinion came after a request from the Daily Journal, which sought clarity on whether text messages were public records. We believed they were. The city of Tupelo, through its attorney Ben Logan, had contended they were not.

Now that the matter is resolved, it’s encouraging that Mayor Jason Shelton and Logan say they’ll proceed to follow the commission’s opinion by developing a system to archive these communications for public accessibility.

The Journal had requested text messages from Shelton over a three-day period last fall in the course of the newspaper’s reporting on the resignation of former Development Services Director BJ Teal.

The commission on Monday delivered to the Daily Journal and the city of Tupelo its opinion, made Friday without dissent on the eight-member panel, that the city - and presumably all public bodies - must archive and make available text messages that have to do with city business.

The city had claimed the messages were not public record in part because they were sent from Shelton’s private cell phone. The Ethics Commission found that public officials’ text messages related to city business, regardless of the device used to produce them, qualify as public records under the Mississippi Public Records Act.

“Any text message used by a city official in the conduct, transaction or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty or function of (the city), or required to be maintained by the (city) is a public record subject to the Act, regardless of where the record is stored,” the commission wrote in the advisory opinion.

The Daily Journal has no interest in personal communications unrelated to official business, but official communications in the context of whatever public position the sender holds should be public record, except as already exempted under the law.



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